I woke up from a dream in which I got to spend time with my paternal grandparents. Oh, how good it was to see them again–to hear my grandfather’s laugh and see his smile. My grandmother told me things she never told me when alive, about herself as a young woman. The grandfather in my dream died in 2004, and it had been so long since I’ve seen him in my sleep. I can’t remember the last time my other grandfather, who died in 1981, visited my dreams. In just a few years, I will be as old as he was the last time I saw him alive.
People who tell us that our dead will always be with us are wrong, I thought, as I opened my eyes in a house none of my grandparents got to see.
My grandparents are receding from me; they don’t occupy the space in my thoughts and feelings they did even just a year or two ago. Perhaps that’s because I’m no longer the woman I was when we last saw each other in this world, and because the world we lived in together no longer exists.
Later that morning, my daughter baked a cake with her husband, who lives on another continent, in a time zone 9 hours apart from ours. He made one there, and she made one here. They worked through a recipe together on a video call. (She lives neither here nor there, but some place in transit between two worlds that are now, I suppose, both home and not-home simultaneously.)
I sat nearby, working a crossword puzzle, while Cane relaxed on the living room sofa, reading whatever it is he reads on his phone. Our house is so small that we were all together. I answered questions about where the sugar was and if the butter and sugar mixture was “light and fluffy.” Cane sipped coffee. Later, I washed up while she dried, and in the bathroom we could hear the buzz of Cane’s clippers as he cut his hair before leaving for the gym.
I’m writing about this so I will not forget that morning, with its remarkable ordinariness, the grass so green through the window I sat in front of while my daughter measured flour and creamed butter.
While the water ran over my hands, I thought about how there will come a time when she is no longer here, when she will be back in her new country, and perhaps it will be the two of us who are baking together through a screen. As I handed her the beater to dry, I thought of all the ordinary kitchen times I shared with my grandmothers, almost none of which I remember now with any specificity.
I know that even if she weren’t going to make her life in her husband’s country, death or time would part us in other ways. Living is a series of so many little deaths, as one version of us gives way to another. I didn’t know this when I was a young woman in other kitchens with my grandmothers, my mother. I didn’t know to cement the moments in memory. I do now, though.
I took the recycling outside, and I was struck by the flowers blooming in the backyard, which I could see through a gate left open by one of us. They are so briefly beautiful, like the green of spring grass. The gate felt like an invitation.
Why write? There are so many reasons, but this is always what it comes down to for me: To keep alive the things I love: slow Sunday mornings in late spring, my daughter as a lovely young woman, Cane and I in the early twilight of our lives.
After this week’s Supreme Court ruling, I thought that perhaps this post I’d written was irrelevant. I decided it’s not. Feel free to see it as an extended metaphor, to make what connections you will.
I want to tell you that she was a good dog, as obituaries generally require us to speak well of the dead, but she was not, by most objective measures, a good dog. She paid attention to our words and wishes only when she wanted to, she was never reliably housebroken (not because she didn’t understand or couldn’t comply with the expectations, but because she really preferred, like the humans in her pack, to go inside), and she was notorious for getting her longtime companion, Rocky, all worked up over nothing. She was a fan of the grudge poop (middle of the hallway, where it couldn’t be missed), and she had no fucks to give about things we might have felt important that she did not.
Which just goes to show that you don’t have to be good to be loved–because love her we did, unconditionally and deeply. Sometimes we loved her more because she wasn’t “good,” and she had us laughing even as we scolded her (such as the time we caught her on the kitchen table, licking butter from the butter dish). She was funny, and strong-willed, and sassy. She did what she wanted. Lucky for us, one of the things she wanted all the time was to be as close to one of her humans as physically possible.
Aside from being with us, her favorite things were eating and taking a nap in a patch of sun. We could all learn a thing or two about living a happy life from her. (Take the nap. Eat with gusto. Love what you love without reservation.)
As a young dog, she loved playing at the river and doing whatever her three kids wanted her to do, even if it involved wearing dress-up clothes. In recent years, she was happiest having a good nap with or on one of her humans.
These last few years, when I looked at her and remembered how she once was–back when she had teeth, and fur on her ears, and a plump belly–I thought often of a passage from The Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
If Daisy was nothing else, she was Real: a small bundle of a being full of desire and need, which gave her a full range of qualities: loving, needy, generous, petty, delightful, naughty, interesting, infuriating, fun. One of the great gifts of Daisy was the way she showed us that being real is more important than being good. That we can be loved not in spite of our foibles and flaws, but because of them. I like to think that in loving Daisy, we we all became a little better at loving each other and ourselves.
Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).
The morning after the school shooting in Texas, my principal shared a resource with information about how to talk with children about violence, and some of it I can’t quite believe anymore. (“Schools are safe places.”) But I glommed onto a sentence about possibility and probability and the idea that while it is possible something horrific could happen at the school where my husband and I spend our days, it is not probable. I shared this idea this with my adult daughter the day after the shooting, and she rejected it.
We were skating together at the mall where both of us now spend a good portion of our time, and I argued for optimistic probability even as I was remembering a moment only a few weeks ago when a noise that didn’t sound right caught my attention while I was skating, and my first thought was: Where do I go if someone starts shooting?
It’s not probable that someone would start shooting in the mall, but I know it’s possible because of the 2012 shooting that happened in a mall not far from the one where each us now goes several days a week. It was a mall that I regularly took my children to when they were young. I know it’s not probable that I will ever be directly involved in a mass shooting event, but when you have trained and drilled for years for that possibility, when the structures in which you have spent your working days for more than three decades have gradually been transformed into semi-fortresses, when so much of how you operate within those structures is shaped by potential threat, it is no wonder that my first thoughts on hearing a noise that didn’t sound right were: I’ll need to get off the ice, this space is an obvious target. I can’t run in skates. Where is a place with no windows? Where is a place with a locked door? Where can I get quickly with skates on?Are there children here who will need help?
I didn’t get off the ice that morning because I quickly determined that there was no threat and because I know–I truly do know–that it’s not probable that any unusual loud noises in public spaces are the beginnings of a mass shooting event. Still, I do know it’s possible to be directly involved because a principal I once worked for had previously been principal at a school when it was the site of an infamous shooting. I know it’s possible because a school I once taught at was the site of a shooting (and my former classroom there had windows that faced the field from which the shooter fired). I know it’s possible because of the school shooting at a high school two miles from my house in 2014, a school that some of my current students attend and that was the target of a threat (one deemed not credible, but still) on Friday. A colleague/friend had a child that was in attendance at that school that day in 2014, and I will never forget the sight of his face as one of our administrators walked him down the hall after pulling him out of class to tell him what was happening. I know it’s possible because of an event in 2019 that happened at the high school serving the neighborhood I now live in. I know it’s possible because in the US this year, we are averaging 10 mass shootings a week.
Still, I argued with my child that it was not probable. She rejected that. What she was rejecting, I think, was a line of thought that can be used to dilute the horror of where we’re at with this, or to be in denial about it. Our debate grew a little heated, and I finally had to say: “I can’t talk about this any more right now.”
I needed some denial to be OK on Wednesday.
Later that day I de-activated my Facebook account because I don’t know that I can listen any more, either. We seem to have moved past thoughts and prayers as a primary response (unless you’re a politician who takes NRA money), but it was the earnest pleas from so many that I care for and respect (but who don’t work in schools) to call senators and give money to activist groups, and the assertions that now, finally, something will be done that did me in. I just couldn’t listen to it this week. How can anyone who is paying any real attention to what’s happening in our government believe that our calls are the thing that will make something change? It is so clear–on so many fronts–that the desires of the majority are not what’s driving too many of our lawmakers, on so many issues.
I couldn’t listen because the next day I had to go to school and do my job, and I couldn’t do the latter if I had done the former. I cannot teach well when I’m dis-regulated from fear, anger, and hopelessness, and when seeing our responses to this latest massacre of children, those are the emotions I felt. I chose doing my job (because what other choice is there?), where the threat of violence is such a constant hum in the background of what we do–it’s in the badges that we wear, the locks on all the outer doors, the reminders not to prop the doors open, the drills, the security camera footage playing on a big screen in the front lobby, the small shot of adrenaline we get if we see an unaccompanied stranger in the building who isn’t wearing a badge–that we don’t really notice it until something like this (temporarily) turns up the volume of it.
So what do we do? I don’t know what we need to do, but more of what we’ve been doing since Sandy Hook to no meaningful effect feels futile. Of course I will continue to vote, and I will do what I need to do to remain informed, and I might give some money, too, but I’m well aware that while it is possible that our government will reform itself, it is not probable that it is going to happen now. While I know it is possible that large numbers of people will remain activated on this issue past this weekend, I don’t think it’s probable that they will. I think we should all get grounded in these realities and what they probably mean for us, and make our choices–about what to fight for, and how–accordingly.
(The only thing that gave me any real solace this week was this, grim and cynical as it is. Because at least it felt honest and true.)
My students and I read “American Cheese,” Jim Daniels’s poem about, well, cheese–as you’d expect from the title. But, we’ve been working all semester on forming interpretations of literary text, and–of course–the poem isn’t just about cheese. “This is about/this is really about” has become our short-hand for moving beyond literal comprehension of the text’s subject (what it is about) to interpretive comprehension of the text’s themes (what it is really about), and my class of nearly all boys is initially stumped by the question of what the poem is really about, have a hard time getting past the seeming triviality of a man’s preferences regarding cheese.
I back them up. “What is the poem saying literally?” I ask, and we establish facts: The speaker attends department parties with fancy cheeses that he’s come to like. As a kid, he ate American cheese, the stuff that comes in individual, plastic-wrapped squares. (“You know, they can’t even call it cheese,” one student offers. “They’re called Kraft Singles because it’s not technically cheese,” he says.) His dad worked in a factory; there were five kids in the family. They ate cheese sandwiches. When he visits home now, he craves American cheese, and his mother is surprised by how he eats it without anything else.
They skip over what I think are the most crucial lines:
...We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs....
I send them into small groups to identify what the poem is really about, and when we gather back together to share ideas they circle round and round above the poem, talking about food, nostalgia, family–never landing on the lines about birds. When they offer their ideas, I ask them to clarify their thoughts, perhaps to extend them, but I don’t direct them to those lines. My goal is to grow independent readers and critical thinkers, not for them to understand the particulars of this poem, which, in the scheme of literary things, is not a particularly important piece of work.
Someone offers an idea about the poem, and I ask: “Does everything in the poem make sense with that idea?”
Finally, someone gets there, asks what those lines about the birds are about, how they fit in. “Think about how we use our background knowledge and own experiences to build understanding of a text,” I suggest. “What do you know about these kinds of birds, and how can that knowledge give you ideas about how these lines contribute to the poem’s meaning?” I ask.
I drill down just a bit. “How about sparrows and starlings?” I ask. “What about just those birds? What do you know?”
One student, a boy who regularly wears clothing adorned with American iconography, says, “They’re scrub birds.”
I ask him to explain, as I’m not sure what he means.
“They’re, like, nothing birds,” he says. “No one cares about them.”
I let that idea stand. “And what about blue jays?” I ask. “What do you know about them?”
“They’re cool,” he says.
“They’re big, and blue. They’re beautiful birds.”
“They are,” I say, and I turn back to face the rest of the room. “Here’s a great example of how we can form different interpretations of the same text,” I offer. “One person can see blue jays as better birds than sparrows and starlings, who are small and not very noticeable. Jays are bigger and stronger and much more distinctive–and these facts might influence your interpretation of the poem. But I have different associations and ideas about the birds because of an experience I had,” I say, and I tell them the story of the time I watched a blue jay attack a nest of small birds built in branches outside my bedroom window. I tell them about the sounds of the parent birds as their eggs were destroyed, how they never returned to the nest once they finally left it. “Blue jays are birds that attack other birds,” I say, “and because of my experience, those are more important facts about them to me.”
Now that we have turned the keys of these lines, the poem unlocks. Yes, it is about food, and family, and nostalgia. It’s also about social class, and a declining culture, and pride, and love of country, and community, and hard choices, and survival. What it’s saying about those things is open to interpretation, to different ideas.
We don’t reach strong conclusions about the poem’s meaning as a class. We are a diverse group. I like leaving them with some ambiguity. I want them to figure it out for themselves, to be able to sit with complex and contradictory truths. I know that me telling them what to think or insisting on a particular interpretation won’t meet my goals. They might say what they think I want to hear, but they’re going to think what they think, do what they want to do with their ideas.
As they are gathering their things and heading for the door at the end of class, the boy who shared his ideas about the birds says to me, “I liked class today.” He’s a student I have struggled to engage. We are very different people, he and I. He hasn’t done very well with me, and I know that most days he hasn’t liked my class.
“I’m glad,” I say. “I really appreciated your contributions to our discussion.”
“Thanks,” he says, with feeling, and he smiles at me. I smile back, also with feeling. We have such different views of the world he sometimes astounds me, but I will miss him when this school year ends in just a few short weeks. I am glad to have known him, and I think he might say the same about me. There are things in each of us that the other likes and respects. I want to believe that, anyway.
We have no way of knowing, right then, what the afternoon will bring. I don’t know that after I spend it grading my students’ reading logs–which will prompt me to think hard about purposes and how I might determine if they’ve been met–I will learn, while waiting for the copy machine after school, about the latest shooting in Texas. I don’t know that I will numbly run off copies of another poem for our next class, then go to my empty classroom and sit at my desk and wonder what I should feel and do. I don’t know that I will spend long minutes wondering about the nest I’ve built for us, with its twinkle lights stretched across the ceiling, and posters with art from around the world, and a cart full of window/mirror books, and chart paper with our lists of class norms. I don’t know that I will sit in that space, remembering the day in September we began building those norms as we discussed memes about gun control, or that I will leave memory as I tune into the sounds of students playing ping-pong in the foyer while they wait to be picked up, and that it will be the pock-pock-pock of those balls hitting the paddles that will be the thing that brings me to tears.
This post is about teaching high school students how to read poetry/This post is really about gun violence in the United States
On Wednesday, one blogger I follow left a comment on another blogger’s post saying that she is “living life, but with my breath held” and I felt the way I feel when I pass by a store window and am startled to realize that the person I’m seeing in the window’s reflection is me.
As soon as I read the words I realized that I, too, have been holding my breath, the way we do when we know that a needle is about to poke (just got my second booster this week) or some other kind of discomfort is going to land. Aside from living among the constantly flaring dumpster fires of the larger world, I’m also waiting for or living through a fair number of transitions in my personal life. Uncertainty abounds.
It’s all well and good to say, “just breathe”–and I have moments when I intentionally do just that. But life has been moving swiftly and requiring my brain to attend to many other things. Mostly, I now realize, I’ve been getting through the days with my breath held, preparing for shoes to drop or ducking to avoid them. It’s become habit, and most of most days is really pretty good, so I hadn’t noticed the breath-holding until someone else pointed it out. I suppose it’s why I haven’t had much to share here lately; perhaps it’s because, like the blogger whose post prompted the comment, I have so many words that I have no words about quite a lot of things.
So, here are some pictures from the past little while, with just a few words.
This is the hole where the dishwasher used to be. Some words: Full house, sustainability, needs, wants, money, renovation, priorities, eyesore, time, gratitude, love.
Mother’s Day plant sale. Kill your lawn. No man is an island. Wind in the willows. Work in progress.
Because Wordle wasn’t enough for me. Because the NYT crossword and Spelling Bee weren’t enough. Because when there are too many words knocking around in your head, wordplay can be a balm for the brain.
Funky kitchen, part II. Archie & Edith chairs. Best fika spot this side of the pond. It’s weird, but it works. #howwereallylive
Why is this on my camera roll? What is it? How did it get taken? I don’t know, but it is strangely soothing. I like it.
In my years of peak career and parenting, I often longed for the kind of life I saw depicted in books and films set in earlier times. A life where people had time within their work day to sit down for a cup of tea or to write letters longer than strictly necessary. (Think 84 Charing Cross Road or Call the Midwife.) It was a slower world, one where a person had to wait longer than we are now accustomed to for news and products and services, but I dreamed of having days in which I wasn’t constantly racing the clock and fighting exhaustion and cutting corners on everything I did. I yearned for community, rest, health, connection, and meaning–all things that require time to cultivate.
I wondered, then, if I was being taken in by sentimental fantasy. Had such lives truly existed? Could they, now? I became aware of slow movements of various kinds and wrote a bit about them on the blog Cane and I created (an endeavor that was part of what made my life the antithesis of slow). I read blogs by women who were seemingly living gorgeous, throwback lives full of real food and hand-made things and soulful children playing in sunlit meadows. As getting through a week without resorting to fast food eaten in my car with a sweaty teenager or two felt like an impossible dream, I love-hated these online spaces. I knew they were selling a fantasy, but damn: I wanted it.
And now–I think?–I sort of have it. Not some idyllic, click-bait sponsored dream-life, but a genuine slow life. There are no chickens in the backyard, no bespoke linens or cunning needlework projects or seed catalog orders waiting to sprout. I still have a TV, and I watch it. But life has slowed, and it’s better for it.
I think the shift happened in February, when I began skating. Or maybe it happened in December, when I decided to take the winter off from writing here. But it was in March that I noticed my days were being lived at a different pace. It was in March that I noticed the absence of some kind of driving force within myself that had, for decades, pushed me to do and be and accomplish more and more and more. It was in March that I stopped thinking of time as wasted if I had nothing tangible to show for it, no real progress toward some thing I wanted to make or learn or do or achieve outside of those things I needed for our life to function.
Maybe it really all started a year ago, with the broken dishwasher. We still haven’t fixed or replaced it. Dinner now is often a 2-3 hour event, from the beginning of food preparation to the drying of the last dish. I usually don’t bake my own bread or mix my own salad dressing, but we’re eating more real food in which none of the ingredients end in -ose or –ate. Monday night I tore up part of a loaf of bread to dry croutons for a chicken Caesar salad, and I made pasta sauce from whole (albeit store-bought, canned) tomatoes. If I were a person who always bakes my own bread or cans home-grown tomatoes, I likely wouldn’t have had time after school on Monday afternoon to sit on the sofa with my old dog Daisy–a highlight of both our days–and feel myself soften and expand in response to the poetry (truly, poetry) of the final episode of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things. I think my life is better for having spent time that way than it would be if I’d used it to restore furniture or sew clothing or write a poem of my own.
We seem to be in a cultural moment of reckoning with our values around productivity and capitalism, so I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but I want you to know: It feels good to let go of feeling that I need to be breaking any kind of ground. That I have to write Things That Matter. That I need to make Cool Things of any kind. That I must Do Good.
I have whole days in which I do little but move my body, take care of sustaining our lives, and engage with people I love. And it is really, really good. I have other days where I go to work, and I am rested enough to care well for the children who are mine to care for. That is really good, too. As of last week, both of my young adult children are living with us again, and some days are full to overflowing with going to work and maybe taking a walk and then making dinner and cleaning up and talking with each other and carrying the dog down and back up the porch steps because she too-often tumbles on them now. What the days are not full of is any kind of striving.
It feels so right not to strive.
I am being what and who I am, as I am able to, in the time I have–imperfect wife, mother, teacher, daughter, skater, writer, gardener, homemaker, citizen of the world–without feeling that I have to be great at any of those roles or take on any new ones or do more than is healthy given the resources available to me. Although in my life I have absolutely been bound by punishing structures and forces outside of myself that I could do little about, I am seeing that some of my struggle came from within my own head, which is filled with the voices of my (pretty damn toxic) culture.
Maybe my growing ability to silence those voices is a thing that’s coming with age, as I get closer to the end than the beginning and am understanding how fleeting life is. Maybe it is living through this time in which guardrails and safety nets I once thought would always stand have disintegrated, not likely to be rebuilt in my lifetime (or, perhaps, my children’s), and realizing that anything I might do is not likely to significantly change or save (whatever that means) the world.
Whatever the cause and whenever it began, I am grateful that in this week in which we are reaching, again, for Mary Oliver’s “Of the Empire,” I used my time to eat slow dinners with my family and care gently for our dying dog and meet my students with compassion and skate until my body broke a sweat and sit on our front porch in the early evening sun. I am grateful I had space to write these words for no one but you and me and to imagine going back in time and taking aside that struggling, striving woman I once was and telling her this:
You don’t have to earn your right to be here, to take up space on your little speck of the planet, for the blip of time that is yours. You have no more obligation to the world than a tulip or hummingbird or raindrop does. You, too, get to just be. Make your choices knowing that everything you have and do and love will pass. Everything. The best way to serve the world, probably, is to grow and be guided by a heart that is large, and soft, and full of kindness. That’s a project it will never be too late to start, but the sooner you can, the better. Maybe don’t be so slow with thatone, yeah?
In my first post-hiatus post, I wrote a bit about returning to ice skating. I didn’t say all that much about skating or what it really means to me because…well, I suppose because I felt a little shy about it all. Confused. Excited and afraid of looking foolish. Protective. Not really sure of what it means or what it will be. Not unlike the way you can feel at the beginning of a romance.
I mean…c’mon. I am 57 years old. When I was skating–really skating–the Cold War was still in full swing. Jimmy Carter was president. I’m too old to be the parent of many of today’s competitive skaters.
But you know those stories about high school sweethearts who break up and live separate lives for decades and then meet at a reunion and fall in love all over again? I’ve never done that, but I imagine it to feel much as I am feeling about rekindling my relationship with skates and ice and other skaters. I imagine it feels wondrous and improbable and–more than anything else–delightful.
Y’all: I am freakin’ full of delight. On a daily basis.
I know you might not know that from reading my posts, and I’m probably never going to not feel all kinds of angst about the world’s slow burn (both literal and metaphorical) on so many fronts, but I am also, simultaneously, full of delight. Because, what are the chances? Who would ever expect, after 45 years, to fall in love again with the one who got away? Who would’ve thought that existential dread and pure, hope-filled joy can exist in the same being at the same time?
I’m here to tell you: It can. Life is weird. Heartbreaking and wonderful and funny and surprising.
Sometimes, I tell myself that everything that went wrong in mine can be traced back to the time I quit skating, even though I know that’s a little ridiculous. I was 12, and life pretty much turns to shit for everyone when they hit 7th grade, but I hit 7th grade right after I lost a thing that made me feel strong and beautiful and whole. (I think 7th grade–and all the years beyond it–could be a whole different experience for everyone involved if we could all have a thing that makes us feel strong and beautiful and whole.)
It’s all so mysterious. Why would moving and jumping and spinning over ice be a thing that makes a person whole? I don’t know. But skating–even in the wobbly, starting-all-over-again-as-an-almost-beginner way I’m doing it–still gives me moments of feeling strong and beautiful and whole, and I’ve lived long enough to know that’s no small or unimportant thing.
To be clear: Like any love–perhaps, especially, a late-in-life one–it’s not all rainbows and confetti. Every person who’s lived a good chunk of time carries baggage, and unpacking mine has meant coming to new terms with aging and mortality and the passing of time and dreams.
In the past two months, I’ve become grounded in the reality that my body has changed and is changing. That I am going to get old and die. For real. Not in some abstract, “some day” sort of way, but in a concrete, wow-I-can’t-do-things-I-could-do-just-a-few-years-ago sort of way. In my head, I’ve still been mostly the same physical being I was in my mid-30s or so. Sure, I’d gained a few pounds, but I could still do all the same things, right? Ummm, not exactly. Now, in both my head and body, I know I’m not the same physical being I thought I was. (If you want to know how old your body really is, take up a sport you haven’t played since you were a tween. You’ll know, too.)
I know this might sound kind of grim–and I’ve had my moments of feeling fairly terrible about it all–but it’s really not. It’s becoming the foundation for a kind of gratitude I’ve never felt before. Yes, I’m going to die, but I’m not dead yet. A thing I thought was lost to me has come back. (What else might this be true for?) My body has deteriorated, but not so much that I can’t embrace this opportunity. The ladies I skate with tell me I’ve come back just in time; I’m still young enough to regain many of the skills I once had, but if I’d waited even a few more years that might not be the case. For the first time since–well, since about the time I quit skating, really–I’m feeling more gratitude than resentment toward my body.
Speaking of the ladies I skate with, I have discovered that there is a whole world of adult skaters. This did not exist when I left skating in the late ’70s, but now the US Figure Skating Association has a program for you if “you are an adult who became a skater or a skater who became an adult.” I’ve had a hard time knowing which kind of adult skater I am. A woman I take lessons with is 73 years old, and she didn’t start skating until she was 55! She can skate circles around me in our dance class, but there are things I can do that she can’t because of the skating I did when I was young. Still, I don’t really feel like a skater who became an adult, either. I’ve joined two Facebook groups for adult skaters, and I see post after post from people wondering if they can come back after 20 or 25 years away. These are people who skated and competed for years as children and teens, and they are in their 30s and 40s now.
I skated for only 18 months (albeit fairly intense ones), and I did it 45 years ago.
How is that possible? How is that a real thing? How have that many years of my life passed? How is it that my body has retained enough muscle memory from so long ago that I have moments when I can do things without knowing how, exactly, I’m doing them? But why are there other, far simpler things that I can’t do? How can I be thinking of skating–really skating–after more than 4 decades away from it? What does “really skating” mean, anyway, now? What can it mean? How can a thing I did for such a short time feel and be so important? Both back then and now? How can age be something that is both so concrete and so amorphous, with time simultaneously expanding and collapsing every time I step on the ice?
At times, this has all felt like mind-fuckery of grand proportions–but in a good way? Or at least, an amazing, interesting, isn’t-life-weird way. I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and for once in my long history of questioning almost everything, I am not impatient to find them. I am figuring out this romance as I go, and I know that–this time–I get to form answers that will work better for me. This time, there is no such thing as “too old” and no reason to do any of it other than love. What a freaking amazing gift! To get to rewrite a painful story and give it a whole new ending. To heal my relationship with my body. To get to skate just for the love of it, and to have found it again while I still can. I haven’t yet come across anyone with a backstory quite like mine, which has me feeling that my relationship with skating is a bit of a unicorn. A beautiful, rare, magical thing.
I think I might start farting glitter any day now.
(That is, of course, not me in this video! I couldn’t do half those moves, even without a unicorn costume on.)
I would love to hear about anyone having an experience of returning to a lost love. Or about a lost love you’d like to get back to. Hoping mine can help you believe that it’s not impossible.
The Skater The skater is only eleven, her narrow body just beginning to grow out of control. She is moving backwards, tiny skirt lifted flat against the arch of her back, mittened hands held out, the pose of her index finger hidden in the wool. With force she leaps, a simple hop from one foot to the other, yet, for her, flight: for an instant she is suspended, legs open, arms circled, closed, her act both giving and receiving; then she is bound again, landing crunch hiss, her blade holding an edge firm into a smooth curve, her free leg stretching, her arms reaching up, out– not in a pose, but a celebration. Then she is off again, sharp air pushing against her cheeks, turning them pink, turning her into a ripple of sleeves, skirt, hair, and she breathes deep, moving backwards still with long, sure strokes, feeling she’s pulling the ice in, to her, consuming it with her limbs, knowing she’s found the element she was born to exalt in, and intoxicated by it all– the air, her speed, the power in her body, strong and fresh as clean ice– she drives her toe down to propel herself up again, arms and legs held close, tight, never thinking of the pock in the ice, the hole that is the price for this glorious, twisting flight, or of her landing, which may or may not crunch hiss into a smooth edge that curves gracefully as the arch of her tender back.
I wrote the first version of this poem in the fall of 1987, the day before I began my first “real” job after graduating from college. It had been more than 10 years since I’d quit skating, but these were the words that came to me as I thought about leaving behind my life as a student, the only one I’d ever known. I was going to be working in a cubicle, with two weeks’ vacation every year. Sitting at my sunny dining table, I thought about how it would likely be decades before I would again have time on a weekday morning to write poems.
I wondered what I was gaining and what I was losing and how I would feel about it all far in the future, at the end of my work life, when I might again be able to spend weekday mornings writing poems.
This week, trying to write a post about my return to skating, I remembered the poem I wrote nearly 35 years ago. I went searching for it in a box of papers I have in my attic that is full of essays and resumes and news articles I wrote during those years in which I was figuring out what my life might become. Taking that first job–as an editorial assistant in an educational publishing company–felt like taking a leap, and I didn’t know what it might cost me or how I would land. I knew then what I knew as a skater, though: to complete a jump, you have to trust that you will, while simultaneously being OK with knowing that you might fall.
Two weeks ago, I had to formalize my decision not to return to teaching in September. This week, while talking with one of my classes about how much time we have left and what we need to get done in it, I told them that we would only be meeting 15 more times.
“Only 15 more times?” one boy said in mock dismay. “But Ms. Ramstad, I’m going to miss you!” The others laughed, and I did, too.
“It’s OK, we’ll see her next year,” another one said.
I hesitated, then said, “Well, actually, I won’t be teaching here next year.”
The feeling in the room shifted. “Why?” someone asked, and I said something about retiring.
“I’m already retired, you know,” I said. “I only teach two classes here now. I’ve just decided that I’m ready to retire more completely.”
There was a pause before another student said, “It’s ’cause you don’t want to work with us anymore, isn’t it?” He, too, used a joking tone, but as always with jokes, I knew there was truth in his words.
“No, no,” I said, quickly, seriously, anxiously. “I really like working with all of you. I’m so glad I got to do that this year. It was a hard decision because I didn’t want to give that part of teaching up.”
“Then why?” someone else asked.
I hesitated, then gave them the truth. “I’ve realized that I’m not really into teaching English any more,” I admitted. I didn’t say what I’ve said privately to friends in recent weeks: “My heart’s just not in it.” Not in the way it should be, the way it needs to be, the way it used to be. I can’t make myself care about teaching multiple approaches to literary analysis, about participating in academic discourse. As with so many things now, I’m a one-time believer who’s lost her faith.
“It’s time for me to do other things,” I said instead. I know this is true, even though I don’t know what, exactly, those things are.
Who will I be and what will I do if I’m really no longer a teacher? I don’t know. Stepping away, for real this time, feels like driving my toe-pick into the ice to propel myself into the air. It leaves a hole behind, and it–along with the possibility of falling–is always the price for flight.
But jumping I am, knowing this time what I didn’t at 11 or 22 (or even 33 or 44): That inventing ourselves is a lifelong activity, something we have to do over and over again. Wish me luck that my landing will crunch hiss once more into something as sure as the curve of my tender heart.
Guess I called the end of cozy season a day too soon. There’s about 2 inches (and counting) of snow on the patio chairs. Cross your fingers for all the blooming things.
Seriously. This was TWO days ago. Last Thursday we were 75 and sunny. I’ve put all my warm sweaters away! (sigh)
It is a little past 7:00 AM and we are on a 2-hour delay (Portland) and it’s coming down even harder than it did when I took the video. We’ve just gone above freezing, but we’ve got snow forecast until 10:00.
Kids who show up to school are gonna be super-focused in class today.
Oh-update: We are now closed!
I am never one to look a snow day gift in the mouth. Off to make cookies! And snuggle with Daisy.
(These are healthy breakfast cookies. I eat one every school morning. Recipe.)
I spent some time this week working on a post about skating, but I’m not ready to hit “publish” on it– probably because I spent more time skating than writing, and when I wasn’t skating I was outside, soaking up sun and spring color.
Yesterday we carved out a new section of garden and began planting it. In the house, we put away candles and the little lamp we’ve kept on the dining room table to light our morning and evening meals. It’s been weeks since we’ve turned it on. “Candle and fire season is done,” I said, moving a basil plant to the spot where the candles had been and opening the front door to let in fresh air.
The world’s first green is still gold, but the tulips have already begun their wilt, and the willow’s blossoms are turning into leaves. It’s high spring in our part of the world, when the grass needs mowing more than once a week and branches transform from bare to blossoms in two days. If you blink, you miss it. Sometimes, writing is a way of seeing more deeply and clearly, but sometimes it’s a way of blinking.
I didn’t want to blink this week.
What was worth seeing deeply in your part of the world this week?